FINDING A FUTURE FOR FRANKINCENSE IN THE HORN OF AFRICA
For more than 6,000 years, frankincense, the fragrant sap of Boswellia—a genus of shrubs and trees in the Burseraceae family that grows predominantly in the rocky, arid woodlands of the Horn of Africa, as well as South Arabia and India—has been a prized botanical. Its widespread use over millennia—to calm and prepare the mind for meditation and prayer; as a salve for wounds and infections; to soothe inflammatory diseases; to relieve dementia; and to treat a host of other ailments—makes frankincense one of the oldest commodities traded on a global scale. Today, however, the gnarled bonsai-like frankincense-bearing trees that have scented our lives over the ages are on the decline, being decimated by habitat loss and over-harvesting to meet a dramatic surge in demand over the past decades, driven in large part by the essential oil industry—the market for frankincense alone topping $1.5 billion a year. It is an extraordinary figure given that frankincense is an artisanal wild-crafted herbal product that is not farmed or propagated through commercial agricultural methods. Despite the increase in the demand for frankincense on the global market, the male harvesters and the women who sort and grade the resin have seen little financial benefit, finding themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty that has further driven the pace of Boswellia’s decline.